According to a classical theological principle God accomodates Himself to His human audience through multiple filters. The accomodation theory explains why many biblical verses show God when changing, repenting, being somewhere and so on in order to keep the validity and sustainability of the classical attributes of God (omniscience, immutability etc.). I present below analytically that the theory in its classical form is contradictory. The only element of the Bible where God doesn’t make use of the accomodation is His nature. As a consequence, systematic theologies should be based upon the verses and stories that describe this nature. This will lead on the long term to the creation of more open and relational theologies.
I found a solution to the problem called by me “the baby-talk paradox”.
Classical theism claims that God is omniscient, immutable, impassible, omnipotent and so on. But the Bible has a great number of verses showing God when changing, repenting, being somewhere, suffering, desperately wanting or loving something or somebody, being unaware of future events, making mistakes, taking risks. To solve the problem, classical theistic theologians introduced the notion of “baby-talk”, that is, God speaks to us, as to little children (or to pupils, finite human beings uncapable of knowing who God really is), adjusting and lowering himself to us, using human terms and vocabulary. This is the accomodation theory (a modern theological term), in its original sense.
The Church Father Augustine wrote: “Your words have an astonishing depth – whereas the surface, baby talk for tiny children, is immediately before our eyes…” (Confessions, Book 12, chapter 17 in Sarah Ruden’s new translation)
John Calvin in his masterpiece, the Institutes of the Christian Religion claimed that God “lisps” to us: “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? (Inst. 1.13.1) Because our weakness cannot reach his height, any description which we receive of him must be lowered to our capacity …” (Inst. 1.17.13)
More recently, Louis Berkhof stated in his popular Systematic Theology that “if Scripture speaks of His repenting, changing His intention, and altering His relation to sinners when they repent, we should remember that this is only an anthropopathic way of speaking.” (VI. B.: The Immutability of God)
The dilemma is already quite strong as it is. We could ask why some theologians insist on the literal interpretation of the creation of the world and the inerrancy of all events, including the miracles in the Bible, while holding at the same time to an allegorical, figurative, “baby-talk” interpretaton of entire chapters of the Scriptures when it comes to God’s nature and His actions with His creatures? Why not the other way round?
Here the story gets an unexpected twist.
Augustine, Calvin and other classical theists confirmed another sense of the accomodation theory. That is, in specific events of natural history or when describing the created world, the biblical authors accomodated their words to the audience, so (the authors say) it makes no sense to request from the Bible to be a scientific account of the creation in every sense. It’s relatively less known that both greatnesses, Augustine and Calvin stood to some extent (in a remarkably modern way) for the allegorical interpretation of a number of biblical texts in this respect.
So here is the dilemma as a whole.
Most classical theists claim that
- Every passage of the Scriptures that contradicts the classical attributes of God is God’s child-talk (or pupil-talk) to us. That is, divine language transformed into human language
- Some passages about the created world need allegorical interpretations, too. That is another filter: human language transformed into the requirements of a human audience. (Interpreting the Genesis and other passages literally in modern times doesn’t necessarily follow the wide-spread tradition in Christianity.)
- At least, certain (or all the remaining) parts of the Bible need literal interpretations, like the resurrection and miracles of Jesus or historical events in the Old and New Testament
Of course, classical theism doesn’t see any dilemma here. They claim that the above-mentioned points are coherent with God’s nature and with how he interacts with the universe.
Further problems with the classical view
I list here three further problems regarding the traditional view. The first is relativity. Calvin was an avid observer of the astronomy of his time and interpreted some accounts of the Genesis allegorically. He claims in 1:16 of his Commentary on Genesis that Moses doesn’t make accurate description of the sky and the stars but it’s not a problem since he “wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand”. What if Calvin had known modern physics or biology? Would he have extended his allegorical interpretation of the Bible, such as to his same Commentary, 1:20, where he confirms that God created birds literally out of water? Would he have changed that interpretation from literal to allegorical as he did with the stars and the sky?
The second problem is relevance, which I have already mentioned. Why not take the vast number of biblical verses and accounts that describe God as changing, surprised, making alterations in His divine plan or answering to His creation literally and the verses that describe Him as omniscient, immutable, and so on, allegorically?
The last problem is density. The number of biblical verses describing God as changing, surprised, making alterations in his divine plan or answering to His creation is immense and surpasses those that seem to support the classical view of God.
Giving a helping hand to Augustine and Calvin and to other classical theists who would (or do) struggle to defend their theology in today’s world, I propose the following solution.
- The Word of God has two meanings (the Logos of God, which is the original Greek , and I prefere that to the somewhat ambiguous translation “Word”). First, the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. Secondly, the natural and social lawlike regularities (or laws) that describe God’s creation.
- The forms of Logos cannot be in contradiction with each other. If they are, it’s their essential nature or our knowledge has not resolved each of these contradictions yet.
- The Scriptures are fixed, unchanging sets of inspired words of God.
- Faith is primarily not based on reason, but on God’s grace and in a direct connection with God.
- Natural and historical events in the Bible
- Human knowledge grows and changes and our understanding of God’s creation grows and changes
- As for point 1, our interpretation (let them be literal or allegorical) of the Bible has always changed and will always change. Theologies cannot be established solely for the natural and historical events of the Bible
- The nature of man
- According to Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”. Humans are the primary cause for God’s creation
- God loves his creation, interacts and dialogues face to face with humans as testifed in the Old and New Testament
- As a consequence of point 1 and 2, human beings are not only in a position to interpret God’s own intentions and nature, but God wants humans to do so, as a prerequisite to form a mutually loving relationship between two thinking and sensing beings (God and man)
- The nature of God
- The nature of God is unchanging
- As a consequence of all the above mentioned points, the element of the Bible upon which systematic theology should be primarily based is God’s nature, which is founded on His own inspired words and acts. God’s nature revealed in the Bible cannot be interpreted allegorically
The only element of the Bible where God certainly doesn’t make use of the accomodation is His nature.
As a consequence, systematic theologies should be based upon the verses and stories that describe this nature. If God’s nature cannot be interpreted allegorically, theologians (and regular people) would need to accept the way God shows Himself in the Bible. The God of the Bible is loving, just, powerful, mutable, personal, forgiving, changing in time and passionate, an image that is far from the classical attributes. The theory of “baby-talk” is in many cases useful in the scientific discourses, but regarding God’s nature it is a human invention – it cannot be found in the Scriptures.